National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 2003

-- Notre Dame Archives

'Neurotic' mystic saw Christ in all

Caryll Houselander was sharp-tongued recluse with overwhelming empathy for the suffering


As German “Doodlebug” bombs convulsed wartime London, Caryll Houselander looked through her thick eyeglasses into the bathroom mirror and saw her carroty red pageboy framing a face that was not pretty. As she did every day, for reasons known only to her, she covered her face with a chalky-white substance that gave her the kind of “dead-white face” that a friend described as “the tragic look one associates with clowns and great comedians.”

As with so many mystics, Houselander was paradox. She preached a social gospel, yet she was a virtual recluse. She felt overwhelming sympathy for the world, yet she had a razor-sharp tongue and biting sense of humor. (When she worked in a wartime first aid station, a nurse asked, “Houselander, are you sterile?” Houselander quipped, “Not as far as I know.”) She swore, told off-color jokes, liked gin, and chain-smoked “with a dandelion-yellow upper lip.” And by all accounts, she was a difficult person. She was not patient, kind or gentle. She did not suffer fools gladly or even tactfully. She wrote that most Catholic writers started with “the idea of preserving the good in people,” but that she started with “the idea of everything being in ruins.” She did not expect “to find people good, but I expect to find Christ wounded in them, and of course that is what I do find.” And for human woundedness, she had an overwhelming, some would say pathological, empathy.

A woodcarver and ecclesiastical artist by trade, she followed a literary path at the encouragement of friends and others who recognized her genius for seeming “to see everybody for the first time,” and for describing human suffering by using not merely the right word but “the telling word, that left you gasping.” One of these admirers was Maisie Ward, who with her husband, Frank Sheed, formed the Sheed & Ward publishing house in 1927. Ward wrote a colorful account of their professional and personal friendship, and her out-of-print biography is one of the few remaining sources of information concerning the unlikely mystic (Caryll Houselander, That Divine Eccentric, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962).

Houselander penned 15 books for Sheed & Ward through the 1940s and early ’50s and wrote more than 700 poems (which she called “rhythms”), short stories and articles.

She wrote for the people of her time, victimized by war, but she also wrote for people of all time. It was easy, she said, to see Christ indwelling in saints and “imaginary people,” but far more difficult in “our own relations and our intimate friends.” Her message was spectacularly simple: It’s always easier to see a finely carved Christ hanging on a gilded cross than it is to see him in our boss, our estranged sister or our enemy in war. But wounded and helpless people in war camps, prisons, workhouses and mental asylums were “obliged to offer themselves to God in the hands of other people, like the Host in the priest’s hands at the Mass.” This offering, this trust, was essentially human -- when we are able to give, we give to the Christ in each person; and when we are needy, we trust ourselves to the Christ in each person.

‘Persecution of piety’

Born in 1901 in Bath, England, Caryll Houselander was the second of two daughters born to Willmott and Gertrude Provis Houselander, an attractive and athletic couple. Willmott was a skilled huntsman; “Gert” had played center court at Wimbledon. But little Caryll was a sickly child who wasn’t expected to survive a day. Her physical weakness (she was never healthy) immediately distanced her parents. But when she was 6, her mother’s conversion to Catholicism led to Caryll’s baptism, followed by “multitudinous prayers, devotions and pious practices” and a “persecution of piety” that caused her and her sister to spend their pocket money on “deplorable statues, flower vases, flowers, lamps and candles and candlesticks, as well as lace and linen cloths” for the home altars their mother insisted they construct. These altars, which may have sparked her interest in ecclesiastical art, became what she described as “positive riots of the worst that repository art can produce.”

The day after Caryll’s 9th birthday, her parents permanently separated. With her financial security gone, Gert opened a boarding house and later sent Caryll to the cloistered Convent of the Holy Child, where the girl was left even during holidays. At the school, the French and Belgian nuns taught the children how to make jams, knit woolen helmets, and hate Germans. Here, Caryll experienced her first mystical experience. One day, she noticed a Bavarian (“To us, Bavarian meant German”) nun sitting alone, cleaning shoes and weeping. After a long silence, Caryll saw a mental picture of the nun’s head weighed down by a crown of thorns. From this vision, she came to understand that Christ was suffering in this nun.

But Houselander was far from saintly. In fact, she wasn’t particularly religious. Her vision in the convent, combined with two more revelations, would take years to transform the girl. At 13, her diseased appendix sent her home to London, and her subsequent schooling was erratic and never completed. During her teens, she lived and worked at her mother’s boarding house, where she administered injections to an ailing friend of Gert’s, a priest, whose residence at the boarding house had caused a scandal. Local Catholics shunned and vilified Caryll and her mother, contributing to Caryll’s later departure from the church.

The boarding house experience only deepened her isolation. As a teen, she suffered “digestive” illnesses, and throughout her adult life she suffered a pattern of self-inflicted starvation intended as atonement for guilt but more likely caused by an eating disorder. Equally disturbing was her fear of people: “Even in my own home I could not bring myself to enter a room in which there were other people, even people I knew well, until I had first gone to the door two or three times and failed to force myself to walk in.” From her descriptions, it seems likely that she suffered from panic attacks. For these and other oddities she was pronounced, in the parlance of the day, “neurotic.”

As an older teen, a culmination of rejections by local Catholics caused Caryll to leave the church until her mid-20s. But during this period, she experienced visions that, like the Hound of Heaven, hinted at a divine pursuit of her soul.

On a rainy night in July 1918, Gert sent Caryll to buy potatoes from a street vendor. Along the way, Caryll saw a “gigantic and living Russian icon” -- she had never seen one before -- in which she recognized Christ the King crucified, “lifted above the world in our drab street, lifted up and filling the sky … with his head bowed down … brooding over the world.”

Soon after, she learned of the assassination of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and saw from newspaper photos that it was Nicholas’ face she had seen on the suffering Christ.

Her next vision occurred on a crowded subway train amid “all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging.” Suddenly, she saw Christ in each passenger -- “living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them.” In these passengers she saw the whole world. Later, as she walked among the crowds in the street, she saw Christ in every passerby. This vision lasted several days, convincing her that “oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness.”

Reaching out for Christ

Hers was the paradoxically clearheaded spirituality that so often emerges from a “neurotic” mystic. These three visions -- of the nun, the tsar and the commuters -- convinced her that Christ is in all people, even the ones from which we turn away “because of the image we have formed of what sanctity ought to be.” If we look for Christ “only in the saints, we shall miss him,” she wrote. “If we look for him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be the good in us, we shall begin in presumption and end in despair.” If we reach out for Christ in other people, it cannot be “in the way that we think he should be, not in the way that we already understand, but in the way that he chooses to be, who is himself the Way.”

In 1925, she returned to the church, but it was never the institutional church that nurtured her. She turned not to the church fathers or to papal teaching but to the Gospels, which alone were powerful enough to sustain her. She was acutely aware of her “oddness” and called herself “broken across psychologically.” Her parents had emotionally neglected her. And, as a young woman, she fell in love with a Russian spy, a double agent, 26 years her senior. A year later, he married another woman, a loss from which Caryll never recovered. She understood with agonizing clarity the meaning of Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Houselander’s first book, This War is the Passion (1941), explored individual suffering in the body of Christ during war. Response to this book ranged “from Anglican bishops to agnostic circus midgets.” For a time, she was Sheed & Ward’s best-selling author, with The Reed of God (1944), The Passion of the Infant Christ (1949), and the posthumously published autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic (1955). But with success came the loss of solitude. She maintained a vast correspondence with people all over the world who sought her spiritual guidance. So many needy people showed up at her door that she occasionally found escape through a back window. She wrote to Ward, “The lack of solitude seems to destroy me.” By winter 1945, anemia and nervous exhaustion had overcome her, but she never failed to respond to the suffering Christ in people who came to her.

Halfway through the war, doctors had begun sending patients to Houselander for counseling and therapy. Badly educated, she nevertheless had an uncanny ability to rebuild trust and self-confidence. These people, like the infant Jesus, were unable to fend for themselves and needed “mothering.” Never married, Houselander had no children of her own to mother, nor had she ever been properly mothered. She saw these children (and adults) of war as the infant Christ, for whom the only acceptable response was the gift of self. The infant Christ depended on each person to be as a mother, carrying him into the world, and this is what she worked hard to do. One eminent psychiatrist who referred troubled patients to her, Dr. Eric Strauss, said Houselander “loved them back to life.” She was, he said, a “divine eccentric.”

Houselander died of breast cancer in 1954 at age 52. As if to prove the ephemeral nature of life, the author whose works were known worldwide only 50 years ago is now mostly forgotten. Her writings, however, chronicle a timeless attempt to redeem individual suffering through identification with the crucified Christ. In the body of Christ, “each one has something to give all the others … and each owes it to all the others to be himself,” to supply what the other lacks. To deny a person’s full humanity “is to mutilate the Body of Christ.” Christ is a needy Christ, one who needs the comfort and compassion of creatures, a Christ whose own divinity is insufficient without its reflection in humankind.

Deborah Halter is a lecturer in World Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003

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